When school is their last concern

Recognising that the system is unresponsive to students with domestic problems, ExamAid is filling the gap
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The Independent Online

ExamAid has become a reality. We are a working group with a growing membership, and we're looking for opportunities to make our case and acquire moral and material support.

ExamAid has become a reality. We are a working group with a growing membership, and we're looking for opportunities to make our case and acquire moral and material support.

The impetus for ExamAid came from two exhaustive research projects looking at how students prepare for GCSE and A-level exams. Sixty Year 11 students were interviewed on a one-to-one basis for the first survey, and an extraordinary clutch of domestic problems was revealed, including deaths in families and long-standing illness affecting the students. Other problems included the continuing illness of a relative, which connected with questionnaire evidence suggesting that "having to look after a sick relative" was a problem for 12 per cent of all students.

Other crisis situations occurred due to a father's redundancy; divorcing parents; a student having left home; a student moving between parents who had split, and another where the student was out of the house for most of the time because of continuing parental arguments. A results-based analysis showed that the students with the poorest results had the most problems, illustrating an impact on schools - even though schools are not culpable and are often pressed to find the time or resources to help.

For the A-level project, the research subject and the methods used were different. Some of the students with part-time jobs were being exploited by employers and forced to continue working long hours regardless of exam commitments. In many of these cases, there was clearly a need for a support system for the students, and codes of practice for employers.

Domestic problems such as bereavement, divorce or parental tension, the effects of redundancy or moving jobs were all prevalent.

These situations are virtually impossible for exam boards to quantify for "dispensation" purposes. What grade difference can be allocated for the death of a grandparent, and how can this be compared to a divorce or separation? Given that, sadly, some will abuse the system, what possible documentary proof can sensitively be asked for in such situations?

The alternative, of repeating the whole process, is not favoured by many students, because time is lost and, as one boy whose father had recently died expressed it, "if I get off now, I may never get back on again". This means a greater imperative to help students through the crucial year.

ExamAid can provide:

Helplines, staffed by qualified education professionals with a minimum of four years' experience and operating out of school hours, which is when most problems are encountered.

A website which will provide correspondence advice and student support, to include those who are ill at home or in hospital and student carers.

A newsletter/magazine which supplies information and resources to schools, and can foster new research on the problems.

Our early recruits have included Alan McMurray, an Ofsted inspector and an ex-head teacher who is concerned about the predominance of the results mentality. "It is surely a crude measure to treat students as though they were widgets rolling off an assembly line. The outcomes of human behaviour cannot be quantified and expressed as a set of simple percentages. But the pressures placed on teachers - and just imagine how this will be compounded by the establishment of a new system of performance-related pay - are inevitably transmitted to students."

Roger Phillips is a counselling psychologist, who contrasts the British and Australian systems. "The main difference is that counselling psychologists in Australia are school-based, whereas here they are somewhere else. The Australian educational psychologist becomes well-known in the high school and is seen as a detached, but trusted member of staff, with an office and all the comforts of confidentiality."

Other members include an experienced teacher training as a counsellor, a nanny turned teacher, a teacher motivated by a student's suicide and a senior teacher responsible for learning support in a large independent school.

Other sympathisers have contacted the organisation and offered various kinds of support in addition to the directly educational, including legal, help towards Charity Commission registration. It already seems clear that many people share a perception of the need for action in this area.

But is a voluntary organisation the right option? In other areas, complementary roles for voluntary organisations are well-established. Few people would deny the need for Oxfam because of occasional action by the international community. The national medical establishment is not used as a denial of the need for the British Heart Foundation or the Cancer Research Institute. And the involvement of a voluntary organisation whose active members are professionals is hardly less appropriate than commercial organisations running schools.

Alan McMurray defines practical support methods. "ExamAid will have the advantage of being available at least 12 hours a day, something it would be totally unreasonable to expect of year heads and group tutors. For many students already under pressure as a result of personal or domestic circumstances, the need for support can often be at its most urgent at night."

He also believes that ExamAid can be of help to teachers struggling to find time for pastoral systems of care. "The burgeoning structure of the national curriculum makes more and more demands on their time. ExamAid will supplement the pastoral work."

Roger Phillips says success is sometimes linked to not being a teacher: "The thrust of the intervention hinged on my detachment from the staff, my not being in a position of power."

ExamAid is on its way. We are looking for professional, financial and moral support and are offering individual and institutional membership packages for people who are interested in more than straightforward donations, though these are still much appreciated.

ExamAid, PO Box 5541, Swadlincote, Derbyshire DE12 6ZQ. Tel 01530-415765. Fax 01530-563592. bharrisma@aol.com